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Cold Plunging: What’s the Skinny?

You’ve probably heard of cold plunging, the wellness trend that involves jumping into ice water for a few minutes. Sounds crazy, right? Well, not so fast. There’s actually some science behind this practice, and it might have some surprising benefits for your health and well-being. But before you grab your swimsuit and head to the Boulder Creek, here are some things you should know.

woman taking photo standing near body of water

Take the Plunge into Type-2 Fun

Type II Fun refers to experiences that are hard or difficult in the moment but beneficial (and fun) in the long-run or in retrospect.

While cold plunging may be uncomfortable (excruciating?) during the immediate immersion, science suggests it can have a lot of long-term benefits. But why?

A Freezing Cold Fire Drill: Training for Your Stress System

The benefits of cold plunging result in large part from its ability to provide a controlled environment in which the body can practice automatically responding to stress (e.g., cold stress exposure).

As a controlled stressor, cold water plunging can act as a form of “stress training” to help improve the fitness of the autonomic (automatic) nervous system (ANS), ultimately improving stress responsiveness and resilience.

Improve Stress Responses and Resilience:

Benefits of cold plunging that influence the autonomic nervous system can include:

What the Heck is “Good Fat?”

Cold stress exposure can also alter body fat composition, which can alter the hormones secreted from different fat tissues and their downstream effects in turn (see Zhu et al., 2019).

  • Most people don’t know that fat is actually a vital organ in the body.
  • There are three different types of fat tissue (white, brown, and beige) associated with different vital functions and hormonal secretions.
  • Cold plunging is thought to increase brown fat stores, which use energy to produce heat, and can thus increase metabolism.

winter, frost, day

What About All those Other Great Claims?

Cold plunging can also benefit:

This Sounds Dangerous. Is it Dangerous?

Of course, there are some potential risks associated with cold plunging. These can include:

Experts at the Cleveland Clinic suggest individuals with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), poor circulation, venous stasis (chronic venous insufficient, leg vein damage), agglutinin disease (e.g., autoimmune hemolytic anemia), autoimmune diseases/disorders, or severe psychiatric problems should consult a medical doctor before cold plunging.

walrus, winter swimming, hardening

Be Cool. Be Smart.

Lastly, there are generally no absolutes in life, and this is certainly true of cold plunging. While many may find it beneficial, some may find it harmful. Listen to your body. Assess the immediate and prolonged changes that you observe during and following cold plunging. Be smart; buddy up: “take the plunge” with a friend who can join you riverside and a health coach who can help you use this practice safely. 😉

Dr. Brenna Bray, a local health and wellness coach, stress researcher, associate professor, and avid ultra-marathon mountain runner, holds PhDs in Biomedical Science, Neuroscience, and Complementary and Integrative Health. Her journey through an eating disorder fuels her dedication to coaching, merging personal experiences with scientific expertise. Through her practice, Bray empowers clients to access and harness their innate healing abilities and achieve remarkable health and wellness transformations. Committed to community engagement and holistic well-being, Dr. Bray shapes a brighter, healthier future for all. Learn more about Dr. Bray at www.brennabray.com.

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